MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday called the Republican-controlled Legislature into a special session beginning next week to consider an $8.5 million package of bills designed to help rural Wisconsin in the face of a crisis that's caused a loss of one-third of the state's dairy farms since 2011.
The Democratic governor told reporters that he was confident the Legislature would move quickly on the plan he first unveiled in his State of the State address Wednesday night. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the bills would be referred to committees for hearings, but that the Legislature will not be on the floor to vote on them next week.
"It's important that we continue to listen to Wisconsinites who live in our rural communities before moving forward on anything," Vos said in a statement.
Time is running short for the Legislature to act. Vos has said the Assembly will be meeting only a handful of days and aims to complete all its work by the end of February.
Vos was critical of Evers shortly after he unveiled the proposals Wednesday, saying the governor had ignored rural Wisconsin until now.
"That's just baloney," Evers said, noting that many of the ideas had been included in his budget last year but rejected by Republicans. "We need to move forward. Our farmers need us."
Wisconsin loses an average of two dairy farms a day as farmers suffer under low milk prices.
"He has ignored that part of the state for most of last year since he's been elected governor," Vos said Wednesday. "If he's a newfound convert that rural Wisconsin has problems, of course we're going to listen."
While Vos was wary of the plan, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Wednesday night that he was "all ears."
"We're all looking for ways to do better when it comes to ag," Fitzgerald said. "There have been a number of proposals by the Legislature but I'm all ears on what the governor has to offer. It sounds like he's been working on something comprehensive so absolutely I think the Legislature should take time to see what the special session includes and work on those bills."
The bills Evers wants the Legislature to pass would:
— create a Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports, at a cost of $1 million, with the goal of increasing dairy exports to 20% of the country's milk supply by 2024;
— hire 20 experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison extension division to provide free research and technical assistance to farmers;
— add five positions and increase funding within the state agriculture department to provide more mental health support for farmers;
— give preference to small dairy processing plants when awarding grants;
— bolster the department's efforts to help farmers diversify their operations and create a new program to award grants of up to $50,000 to assist farmers; and
— create a program to connect local farmers with other entities, besides school districts, that have a cafeteria and could purchase locally grown food.
Evers said he was creating a new Office of Rural Prosperity to help people navigate state programs and resources targeting rural communities, businesses and workers. He also created a blue-ribbon commission to promote agriculture and rural economic prosperity and develop long-term strategies on how to help rural communities.
"I believe the folks who support this initiative will agree with us," Evers said. "It's not a handout. This is not a handout. We are looking to help our farmers and farming communities stay strong."
Evers said he hoped Republicans could work with Democrats to take action.
"We're past the point of pointing fingers, we just need to get work done," Evers said. "I feel confident we're in a good place around this."